Prime ministers from the Visegrad group (Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary) have adopted a common paper calling for fair representation of the new member states in the European External Action Service (EEAS) architecture, Ambassador Ivan Korčok, permanent representative of Slovakia to the EU.
Mr. Ambassador: we are talking one day before an EU summit which is due to decide, among other things, how the Union will help crisis-hit Greece. Slovakia is a member of the euro zone, but we don't know if there will be a eurozone summit before the EU Council.
Your country, however, is a member of the 'Visegrad Four' (V4) together with Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, and there is a V4 summit on Thursday (25 March), with the participation of European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Can you tell us what issues will be discussed?
We have established already a tradition, as other groupings, of meeting before the European Councils. And we are very glad that we can now meet the president of the Commission. Our expectation is that we will mainly concentrate on the issue of the summit, which is the economy, and of course the 'Europe 2020' strategy, which is so important for all of us. These will be the subjects of discussion.
Some countries, like France and Germany, are not particularly happy about these V4 meetings…
Well, you know, I keep on stressing that we are not a political bloc. We are not aware of those concerns, although from time to time, they come up. But no-one is questioning the importance of cooperation between France and Germany. And we are very much open, we do proceed in a transparent manner, and once again, there are also other groupings, like the Benelux, that exchange views. Because we have several positions that are bringing us together…
And many coinciding interests. For example, for Europe 2020, one of the priorities of the V4 countries appears to be your concern over the so-called 'poverty target' as outlined in the Commission proposal. Apparently, you would like to see that replaced with a cohesion target?
No-one has a problem with a target which is aimed at improving the social dimension. And President Barroso when he says 'how can you convince your electorate with a strategy, unless you have one of the targets strongly oriented in the social dimension?' But our questions and doubts are that the situation in respective countries regarding poverty is very, very different. Take Slovakia: according to Eurostat and official statistical data, we are the fourth best-performing country regarding the poverty target.
But salaries are not very high.
Exactly. So you have a very relative comparison, and that's the first point. Secondly, we do see the major orientation or target of this strategy as to generating economic growth. Because only through that we can fund the social model. Therefore the poverty reduction is rather a result of the strategy than one of its instruments.
Wasn't it the Socialists & Democrats group that asked for this poverty target?
Maybe, I don't know. But we realistically see that the Commission is fighting for that. After all, it's the Commission's initiative in terms of content. We have nothing against social-oriented targets, but the varying situation in different countries should be rather a result of it.
Do you think you can convince Mr. Barroso to introduce a cohesion target?
I think the problem is also that you simply don't have enough time to discuss it. We are committing ourselves to a strategy that is foreseen to guide our policy for ten years. However we have had practically no time to discuss that sufficiently, to dicuss that with stakeholders at national level.
Isn't it ridiculous - we are talking about a ten-year strategy, and countries have been given three weeks to come up with positions…
This is a problem to which we are constantly pointing. It's not for the sake of discussion, but how can you establish political ownership? And therefore we back very much the idea of Council President [Herman] Van Rompuy and Commission President Barroso saying that we do need a top-down approach that you involve prime ministers, that they are the owners, but how can they be the owners unless they have had the time to discuss it at national level?
How about the 3% R&D target? This appears to be a problem for Slovakia.
Of course we would like to increase the spending for that target. Where we see a problem is that what is foreseen is not public money, or state money, but also private money. As a state, you can create conditions so that private money as well is more willing to engage in R&D, but you can hardly influence this to a significant extent. Secondly, we say for R&D that this target shouldn't be output-oriented, that means, spending 3%, but input-oriented, in the sense that you have to see what you get in terms of growth when you invest in R&D.
There is also a matter of absorption. For some countries it is difficult to jump to 3% when there is no readiness to absorb such funds.
Absolutely, and in different countries there is different output for R&D. But basically you don't need to convince any Slovak politician that we need to spend more.
On another issue, the European External Action Sevice (EEAS): East European countries in general have been calling for a geographic quota in the recruitment process, meaning that they fear being under-represented. The Visegrad group has issued a common paper in that sense…
Indeed, we have produced a Visegrad paper on EEAS. One of the major issues for which we are fighting is that there is a meaningful presence of the new member states. What we want to avoid is that we will not appear in a situation when we will have doubts that this is our service. Of course, it will take time until the service is up and running, but we need to see a clear direction towards this objective, that there is a guaranteed shared ownersip of member states over this service.
How many Slovaks have high positions in the Commission? How many director-generals do you have?
None. Not a single one. We have been given a 'preferential quota' for countries that joined recently. We have perfectly met our quota, but we don't have a director-general.
And this is five years after accession. Is this disappointing?
Indeed, this is disappointing.
And you don't want this to be repeated in the EEAS?
We don't want it, and of course we accept that these positions will be distributed according to merits. We don't want to have an artificial service which would only be running on the basis of a quota. We want an effective service which is composed of the best people. And we think we have those. And of course Slovakia wants to contribute to those areas where we have expertise. Like for example Eastern policy, or the Balkans.
Is it enough to have a service in place to have a strong European foreign policy?
It's certainly something that should help to implement and carry out the policy. But I'm convinced that the central focus of our foreign policy is still the Foreign Affairs Council. And the role of the EEAS, which is an executive service. It's not an institution, it's not a political body, it should assist the High Representative in the implementation of foreign policy. The EEAS is an instrument, it is not the objective, and it does not reduce the pressure of all of us to take bold decisions at the Council.
Editors Note: Ivan Korčok is a career diplomat. He has served as spokesman for the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a diplomat to Switzerland and to NATO and his country's Ambassador to Germany (2005-2009).